A champion stepped into the cage in Glendale, Ariz., on Thursday night in each of the two co-main events of WEC 53, the promotion's final evening of fights before being absorbed into the UFC. Only one of those men walked out with a belt.
WEC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz actually left the cage with two of them, as when the decision was read following his five rounds of dominance over Scott Jorgensen, he was announced by the booming voice of Bruce Buffer as "the new, and first ever, UFC bantamweight champion of the world." (To truly capture the tone of the announcement, add three exclamation points.) The new belt then was wrapped around Cruz's waist, his old one draped over a shoulder.
The other man who walked into the cage as a champion, Benson Henderson, walked out disappointed and emptyhanded. A close but unanimous decision went the way of Anthony Pettis, who earned the right to retire the WEC lightweight strap and, more important, challenge the survivor of UFC belt holder Frankie Edgar's Jan. 1 defense against Gray Maynard.
The difference in the evening's (and the WEC's) final fight might have been a stupendous, leaping kick that floored Henderson with a minute left in the last round. With the champ backpedaling along the cage, Pettis leaped at the fence, pushed off the flexible chain links with his right foot as if the cage were a trampoline, and used the same foot to kick Henderson in the head, collapsing him onto his back with a thud. Henderson survived until the final horn, but in a fight decided by two 48-47 scores and a 49-46, that spectacular move likely was what sewed it up for the judges.
Then again, it's a miracle that the judges had the presence of mind to even write down a score, as the whole building was awestruck by Pettis's ninja hijinks. While the leaping, bouncing kick had the look of something he could have learned only in a movie theater showing a Jackie Chan film, the new champ insisted he actually developed the move in the gym.
"Duke Roufus," Pettis said in the cage afterward, citing his trainer. "We practice that all the time, just having fun in the cage. That dude's the man."
So is that the type of maneuver the UFC should prepare itself for when Pettis leaves the WEC belt home and challenges for a new one? "I got 10 more of those kicks coming," he said. "I'll do them in the UFC."
It wasn't just Pettis (13-1) putting on a show in the final bout of the evening. Henderson fought like a champion, threatening several times, taking the challenger's back and nearly locking in a rear-naked choke on a couple of occasions. Both fighters were close to securing submissions, in fact, but each time the other guy would either ride it out and survive or deftly reverse positions.
Henderson (12-2) appeared to have the edge in the first round, but Pettis took over in the second and third, spending the later half of Round 3 riding the back of a standing Henderson, body triangle securing his position. Henderson evened the fight (at least on two scorecards) in the fourth, again taking the back of Pettis. The fifth was hotly contested and either man's for the grabbing until Pettis took his big leap into a UFC title bid.
As for Cruz (17-1), rumor has it that he was dominant in his lopsided unanimous decision win over Jorgensen (11-4). It's hard to know for sure, though, because the guy is so quick, so elusive that you barely catch a glimpse of him before he's gone. It's not always pretty the way Cruz dances from side to side, lunging forward, then bouncing back, then forward again and this time bouncing not back but to the side. But in presenting more angles than a geometry professor, he's hard to catch.
Jorgensen did catch him a few times, particularly in the first two rounds, timing Cruz attacks and clipping him on the nose now and then. But for every shot that Jorgensen landed, Cruz countered with four. Some of those counters hit nothing but air, but they kept the challenger from throwing anything more. And as the fight wore on, Jorgensen stalked Cruz but didn't launch much of an attack. It was as if he didn't know where to look.
Cruz certainly knew where to look when the horn sounded to end the fight. He walked right over to the cage and stared at Urijah Faber, the only man who has beaten him. The former WEC featherweight champion choked out Cruz in his second title defense back in 2007.
Now that Faber is fighting at bantamweight, Cruz is resolute that his next order of business is to even the score. "Oh, yeah," he said after three 50-45 scores were read in the cage. "I'm ready to fight Urijah. Let's do it."
Before he fights him, though, Cruz is hoping to spend a little time with the guy. Like, six weeks of taping a reality television show. With Dana White having said he'll announce on Friday who'll coach the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, Cruz looked into the camera during the post-fight show on Versus and lobbied the UFC boss. "I think I deserve the chance to show the kind of personality I have, that I'm not as bad as Urijah tries to play me off to be, I'm really not," said Cruz. "And I would love to prove it on that show."
Hearing that, and watching both Cruz and Anthony Pettis perform so thrillingly, WEC 53 didn't seem like the finale it was billed to be. It felt like just the beginning.
• Donald Cerrone needs to learn how to relax. No, that's not true. If "The Cowboy" were to relax any more, he'd be a Zen monk. Against Chris Horodecki, Cerrone hung out on the outside, flurrying occasionally with fists and feet but mostly just waiting for Horodecki to come at him ... and be greeted by a knee to the gut. (How can Cerrone remain so relaxed? The guy's been in with Ben Henderson twice and Jamie Varner twice. What are you going to bring that he hasn't seen?) Cerrone eventually pounced, put Horodecki on the mat and took his back, but the first round was nearly over by then. So he calmly relaxed (!) for the minute-long break, then resumed. And the second time the fight went to the mat, this time on a Horidecki takedown attempt, Cerrone (13-3) calmly grabbed his opponent's left arm for an oma plata, transitioned to a triangle, then pretty much lay back and waited. And waited and waited (with an occasional elbow strike). And finally Horodecki (16-3) submitted at 2:23 of the second.
• At age 38, Kamal Shalorus doesn't have time for pitter patter. After needing less than half a minute to throw Bart Palaszewski to the mat, Shalorus took top position and immediately began throwing bombs. First he attacked the body, tenderizing Palaszewski's ribs with a steady diet of robust right hands. Then he went after the head, sneaking in a few shots between his opponent's guard. Palaszewski weathered it all, and after he scrambled to get the fight back to standing, he unfathomably didn't look much worse for wear. For the rest of the round and the two that followed, Palaszewski (34-14) got the better of many exchanges, connecting with some head kicks that, combined with the early fast pace, slowed down Shalorus. But "The Prince of Persia" (7-0-2) had at least one takedown in him in each round, and that proved to be the difference in his split-decision win.